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Jim Steen: a college coach’s ‘simple truths’

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Jim Steen looks like your absent-minded professor, losing track of his eyeglasses and forgetting to eat. He wears flip-flops to work.

Appearances can be deceiving.

Steen is so laser focused on the members of his swim teams at Kenyon College in Ohio that they say he can read their minds and finish their sentences. By force of will, he turns an individual event into a team sport.

A sampling of Steen’s simple truths:

Not winning the war isn’t nearly as bad as not winning the battles.
Steen believes intensely in process, in taking one day at a time.

He hardly ever mentions his 29 consecutive men’s national titles or his 22 women’s championships. That’s because he thinks pursuing a giant goal can freeze up the risk-taking and creativity you need to get there.

Reinvent yourself as opportunities arise. One of Steen’s best breaststrokers, Tracy Menzel, started college as a sprinter but began lagging in freestyle, so at her coach’s suggestion, she switched and landed a national title.

Today she wonders what would have happened if she’d had a leader with less imagination, one who hadn’t said: “Let’s do something completely different than what we recruited you for.”

You can take on the world under threat or under challenge. Kenyon’s teammates spend as much time training as their competitors, but they swim for the love of it, not for scholarships.

Pour yourself into your people so they can reach their potential. The investment you make in each person should be palpable. “Swimming here is like a partnership you enter into with Coach,” says a teammate.

Remember that “the exalted will be humbled, and the humble exalted.”
Watching a heavily favored team lose in 2007, Steen felt sick to his stomach “because I could imagine that being us two months later.”

— Adapted from “Simple Truths and Swimming Titles Flow at Kenyon College,” Karen Crouse, The New York Times.

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